formaggio primo sale cheese

I won’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of Primo Sale cheese. For a product that’s believed to be around since before Homer’s times, it’s quite a niche product, especially outside its native Italy. It’s also not beholden to strict guidelines and can sometimes be hard to classify since the term may refer to both a specific type of cheese and a specific process of making a particular type of cheese.

In the article below, we’ll be breaking down what Primo Sale cheese is, what sets different varieties apart, and why it might be a bit hard to classify whether the cheese is, indeed, Primo Sale or not.

What is Primo Sale Cheese?

Formaggio Primo Sale or, sometimes, Primosale. is a young, unaged, or barely aged Italian cheese, made traditionally (but not exclusively) with pasteurized sheep milk. 

But while it may be one of the oldest sheep milk cheese varieties in Italy, it doesn’t have a protected status (aside from one specific DOP variety), so the cheesemakers aren’t forced to follow specific guidelines. Using a mixture of cow and sheep or goat milk, or even exclusively cow milk, is becoming more and more common (not that there aren’t detractors who refuse to accept non-sheep milk cheese varieties). 

Primo Sale means “first salting” or “young salt” in Italian and refers to the specific cheesemaking process, as well as the short maturation process that rarely lasts more than 14 to 30 days.

Texture: Primo Sale most often has a hard and firm, slightly crunchy texture, dotted throughout with small irregular holes called “eyes.” That said, depending on the production method can come in semi-hard and rarer, soft varieties as well. The texture dramatically depends on the moisture levels in the cheese. Large commercial creameries typically default to classic hard and rarer, semi-hard textures, but as Primo Sale doesn’t have a protected status, small artisans tend to experiment more.

Color: Primo Sale color is most often a shade of white, either stark bright or a bit more muted, depending on how long it was aged. But since the cheese isn’t left to mature for long, it doesn’t have enough time to go yellowish in most cases. 

Aroma: Depending on the type of milk it was made, Primo Sale cheese aroma can vary from robust but mild (cow milk) to quite pungent (sheep milk). Primo Sale is often blended with other ingredients like peppercorns and herbs, so the aroma often has peppery and herby notes. The more other flavoring elements are added, the more prominent these notes become.

Flavor: Unflavored Primo Sale has a pretty mild flavor, especially for hard cheese. The leading notes are sweet, fresh, and milky, with soft grassy and earthy undertones characteristic of Primo Sale made with sheep milk. The aftertaste is more complex, the sweetness laced with some tanginess, and noticeable (but not overwhelming) sour notes.

How is Primo Sale Cheese Made?

Regardless of what type of Primo Sale cheese we’re talking about, soft or hard, made with cow milk or sheep milk, the cheesemaking process starts the same way: the milk is slowly heated, and when it reaches a specific temperature, a cheesemaker mixes salt into it, before the curds are formed.

This is an unusual step in cheesemaking: typically, the salt is added after the curds are formed, and the whey has been drained, and sometimes the cheese is only brined after it’s been molded.

It’s theorized that adding salt to the milk used to be a way to prevent harmful bacteria spread back in the day, but as a side-effect, it also slowed the fermentation process, giving the Primo Sale cheese a fresher, milkier flavor.

The moisture levels of the cheese do depend on how long the milk is stirred. Traditionally Primo Sale is a hard or, at least, semi-hard cheese with a firm texture, but you may encounter some soft Italian cheese varieties also marked Primo Sale, referring to the cheesemaking process rather than the specific type of cheese; especially at small artisanal shops.

After the salt is stirred in, the milk is left to sit for a little while before the rennet is stirred into the mix. The rennet is added in several small batches instead of all at once. The milk is then left to form curds. 

The curds, once set, are cut into small pieces and stirred again. This is the most critical step of making Primo Sale cheese: the longer the curds are stirred at this stage, the firmer the final cheese will be. Classic Primo Sale is stirred for so long that it can harden in as little as a day.

Only at this stage are the curds left to drain. Once the whey has been removed, the curds are stirred one last time to ensure they’re appropriately separated and transferred to the molds. If the Primo Sale is supposed to be flavored, this last stirring is used to blend different flavoring elements into the cheese, most often various herbs like chilis, peppercorns, basil, and arugula; nuts, and, nowadays, the ever-popular truffles. 

While in the molds, the cheese is divested of the last remaining whey and set into the proper form. Once the cheese is ready, it’s removed from the molds and transferred to an aging facility.

Primo Sale cheese can be ready for consumption in as little as 24 hours; however, the ones prepared for commercial distribution are typically aged a bit before packaging. The average maturation length for Primo Sale is between 14 and 30 days, though in rarer cases it can reach 2-3 months.

The Types of Primo Sale Cheese:

If you ever get to explore different types of Primo Sale cheese at an Italian cheese shop, you’ll find that it’s a vastly broader term, encompassing more varieties of cheese than we, non-native consumers, tend to think. 

To put it simply, Primo Sale can refer to hard, semi-hard, and soft Italian cheese made with different types of milk. What binds them together is that they’re all young, unaged (or, at least, have been left to mature for a very little time), and have been salted only once, either during the production process (more common) or after, without additional brining.

Primo Sale made with sheep milk (Pecorino) is the one we tend to refer to as Primo Sale the most often. It’s one of the oldest hard Italian cheese varieties, native to Sicily and Sardinia, and with a lot of similarities with classic Pecorino Siciliano. 

Pecorino Siciliano Primosale DOP is a seminal Sicilian cheese, one of the oldest and most renowned (according to local belief, the cheese made by Cyclops in Homer’s Odysseus as was Pecorino Primosale). The difference between these two is that Pecorino Primosale is typically made with unsalted milk, and the “first salting” takes place after the first week of aging. When it comes to non-DOP Pecorino varieties, it’s up to the cheesemaker whether they make it with salted milk or salt the cheese after.

Primo Sale made with cow milk is more common in northern regions like Emilia-Romagna and Liguria. While sheep milk cheese is viewed as more traditional, cow milk is becoming a more and more popular choice with large commercial creameries, as it’s easier to acquire and viewed more favorably when exported. The cow milk Primo Sale shares the same production process and characteristics but lacks the prominent grassy and earthy undertones characteristic of sheep milk cheese even when fresh and unaged.

Primo sale made with a mix of cow and sheep milk is less common than cheese made with cow milk only. Still, while somewhat of an unorthodox option for both North and South, it’s quite well-regarded in both, likely because it bears the aroma and flavor notes characteristic of both. However, the grassy and earthy notes of sheep milk are somewhat muted.

One Cheese, Many Faces: Before and After First Salting

In Sicily, Primo Sale refers to only cheese made with sheep milk. Instead of an independent product made in a specific way, it’s a maturation stage for Pecorino Siciliano

Sicilian Pecorino cheese is divided into four distinct varieties:

Tuma is the freshest cheese, Pecorino, made without the addition of salt to the milk and consumed within the first two weeks of production.

Primosale is another young Pecorino variety; however, in Sicily, salting the milk isn’t a necessary attribute (it depends on the cheesemaker). If made with unsalted milk, the “first salting” takes place after about a week of aging. The maturation process, however, is similar to other types of Primosale cheese, typically taking between 14 and 30 days.

Secondosale (it. “Second Salt”) is a semi-matured Pecorino variety, traditionally aged for around three months, sometimes a bit more. The “second salting” takes place after roughly a month of aging, when the Primo Sale stage tends to stop.

Pecorino Stagionato is a mature, seasoned variety. It typically ripens for no less than four months and can be left to age for up to a year.

What is Primo Sale Cheese Used For?

Primo Sale cheese is rarely used for cooking. It’s traditionally either thinly sliced to be served as a cold appetizer and added to sandwiches or crumbled and used to garnish salads, pasta, risotto, and the like.

When served as an appetizer, it’s garnished with olive oil, pepper, and mint and paired with fresh bread and crisp, dry white wine. 

How Long Does Primo Sale Cheese Last?

Commercially packaged and vacuum-sealed Primo Sale can last anywhere between 6 to 12 months, the same as most hard cheese varieties, as long as the packaging isn’t damaged (if you notice any damage to the packaging, contact the manufacturer immediately for further instructions).

However, Primo Sale is also fresh and unaged cheese, so its shelf life drastically shortens once you open the packaging. The cheese is best consumed within ten days after opening and shouldn’t be kept for more than 18 days, even when stored correctly in an airtight container in the refrigerator. 

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